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Switching to Doubles

Q. "I recently switched from playing singles to mostly playing doubles. I find that what used to work very nicely for me in singles is actually poor strategy in doubles. As an example, while playing singles from the baseline, I would frequently drop the ball short and either win the point outright or hammer away the weak return. However, in doubles, the net player just puts away my return, easily winning the point. What advice would you give a person switching from singles to doubles play? Also, are there any books that you would recommend? Thanks in advance."

From Bobbye D.:

I would suggest that John enroll in a doubles strategy class at his local club or tennis center. There is a lot more strategy involved in doubles, including, of course, not hitting to the net player!

From Gary H.:

John, first of all, I feel that doubles is a lot more fun to play. Keep it simple; placement is a lot more important than pace. Also, you will notice that most doubles players keep the ball a little lower over the net than singles. If you were not used to playing an attacking game of singles, you will want to move in towards the net more when playing dubs and work on volleys.

Most singles players tend to stay back in dubs, wanting to hit groundstrokes, and find that their partners who are moving in are usually getting balls hit at them from teams that move in to attack the net. Talk to your partner and see what type of game he or she prefers to play, but always have fun.

Also, ha, don't try to pass the net player down the alley too much. Most singles players do this way too often.

From Bill S., Pittsfield, MA:

There are many things to learn when transitioning to doubles. One terrific book is "The Art of Doubles" by Pat Blaskower. It is packed with great info and detailed explanations.

One tip that helped me a lot was the answer to the question "which partner should take a ball hit up the middle?" I used to think that the forehand should take it, but actually the general answer is the person diagonal to the person striking the ball. Read the book for discussion of corollaries and special cases.

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

A return down the middle of the court is fine in singles, but in doubles, look out for the net player. Get your first serve in at a high rate and decide if you are staying in the back court or coming up before; don't get stuck in no man's land.

A good practice for the doubles return is you and your partner playing cross-court points and hitting lots of balls from the back court, forehand and backhand cross court. Play points in this half-court, cross-court position, using the doubles alleys.

A good format for returning the ball in doubles is both of you staying back on the first serve. Again, in practice, hit one on one from service line to service line, which will develop great reflexes. Also, concentrate on keeping your racquet in front of you, split stepping and not swinging at the volley. Make sure your overhead is in good practice shape because this shot is key in doubles. Keep you head up and use your left hand to point at the ball.

In singles, you are alone. In doubles, it’s a team out there. Talk to your partner but try to stay positive, even if your partner is making errors. Call out for the ball if it’s in the middle.

As for picking sides, try to play your best return side, and let the better server serve first. Getting the return cross court or sometimes down the line or a lob are good options!

Good luck and have fun!!

From Chris, Columbia, SC:

My partner recently made the switch from singles to doubles. We've worked through the transition by taking some lessons as a doubles team with a focus on strategy.

The first rule: Keep the ball away from the net player. Whether that means cross court deep, cross court at a sharp angle, passing down the line, or a lob over the net player's head, your first responsibility is to avoid giving the net player a put-away shot.

Part B of Rule 1: If you can't seem to keep the return away from the net player, have your partner start the point at the baseline so that he will survive to play another day.

From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

I know another John who played singles and doubles in the early 80s. He and Peter Fleming ruled the doubles world. Johnny “Mac” played singles and doubles. What was determined is that doubles will strengthen your singles game. With doubles, each ball must land where intended, period.

Since every point is played against two players and most points are won at the net, there are two things that a player must control (and you don’t even have to be a “good” player). They are time and distance. Controlling these two items is was makes a mediocre player look good and win points.

Along with time and distance, learning how playing the non-hitter is huge. If you really want to learn more about it, find Peter Collins’ DVD, “Successful Doubles,” and watch it. Then play and watch it again and repeat the cycle until you and your partner have it straight. Have fun and keep playing.

From Cybil P., Fargo, ND:

“Laugh and Win at Doubles” by Vic Braden is a great book for learning not only the tactical side of doubles, but the teamwork aspect, also.

From Marta, San Juan, PR:

I switched to doubles many years ago, but I keep myself taking doubles strategy lessons from my club's pro. There are many DVDs you can buy from tennis magazines that can also help you with doubles.

From Dan D.:

Singles is primarily a game of depth. Although not used enough by modern players, deep groundstrokes will frequently produce shorter approach shots, which allow you to come in, close out on the net and generally win the point. After all, the most difficult shot in tennis and the lowest percentage shot is the passing shot (provided it is being hit off a deep approach shot). Generally speaking, the basic strategy of singles is to give your opponent less time between shots by taking the ball early, hitting it deep (cutting down on the angle of his return) and thereby allowing you to close out at the net.

Doubles, on the other hand, is primarily a game of angles. A player who is able to hit short angle shots opens the middle of the court for very high percentage point-ending shots. Almost every tennis pro I know will tell you to hit down the middle when you are in trouble in doubles. It is the only time that you make your opponents make an outright decision as to who will hit the return. For this reason, doubles requires an even deeper focus. In other words, in singles, you know you have to hit the next ball or lose the point. In doubles, there is frequently a tendency to think or question as to whether or not your partner is going to take it. Very frequently, neither player tries for the ball down the middle for that very reason.

Also in doubles, I would recommend that you work a lot more on your return of service. Obviously, the targeted area of the return is much smaller in doubles than it is in singles, and if you are not very focused, you probably will be sneaking looks at the net player when you should be watching the ball. I suggest that in both singles and doubles you should determine where you are going to hit the return of service before the server begins his motion. Do this, even though you don't know whether it is going to be a forehand or a backhand return. Many players find this to be a very difficult concept to understand, but when you examine the facts, it is the only thing that makes sense.

Psychological studies have now shown something that most tennis pros knew years ago. Namely, trusting your instincts when the time frame is less than four seconds produces better results than does conscious activity. Imagine a service coming at you at 140 mph. It only has to travel a maximum of 60 feet. Do the math. At 140 mph, it is far less than four seconds from hit to hit. In fact, it is less than one second. It helps that most good doubles players will serve down the "T" most often because it affords the returning opponent much less angle to return the ball to. Knowing this leads to a greater sense of confidence because it mistakenly allows you to believe you are in control. Conditioned reflexes are not under your control, and they have resulted from years of evolution as the primary protective response to danger and, yes, the brain does consider a service traveling at a speed of 140 mph to be a true and present danger.

Hopefully the thoughts of this old tennis pro will help you.

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